Ordinarily, a public conversation between a top prosecutor and the chief of a police department would turn few heads; both are part of the system meant to catch criminals and punish them.
But a virtual meeting between San Francisco Police Chief Bill Scott and DA Chesa Boudin on Wednesday afternoon was anything but ordinary: It hasn’t even been a month since Boudin charged a former SFPD officer with manslaughter for shooting and killing an unarmed man. Last week, Boudin announced that a grand jury had indicted an active SFPD officer for shooting a man while he was on the ground in the Mission District. And on Monday, Boudin announced assault charges against an officer who repeatedly beat a man with a baton at Pier 39.
The chief has made his disapproval public, calling the indictment in the Mission District shooting “quite frankly disappointing.” And only last night, he responded to Boudin’s charges against Officer Terrance Stangel for beating Dacari Spiers with a baton last October by implying that Stangel was just doing his job. “To members of the SFPD, I fully support you,” Scott said, calling the present moment “a difficult time for policing.”
Despite the tension, the two men sat down Wednesday for a virtual “conversation” hosted by the DA — scheduled because viewers of the weekly program wanted to see Scott and Boudin discuss their relationship and its challenges. Boudin called the event after he announced charges against the third officer on Monday.
During the conversation, the two appeared as cordial as two friends at a bar. “A lot of people don’t know that you and I communicate frequently,” Boudin said to Scott. “We talk on the phone sometimes all hours of the night.”
And they wasted no time in talking about the District Attorney’s Independent Investigations Bureau, or IIB, the team that is responsible for investigating and charging police for criminal behavior — though they never touched on the specifics of the recent cases.
“There have been some growing pains,” Scott said.
One of the main challenges, the chief said, was the police department being out of the loop on how Boudin and the unit are making the decisions on whether to charge a police officer. “We, the police department … are privy to a large degree of what’s out there — what information has been used to make a decision,” Scott said. But “we’re somewhat in the dark on what’s driving those decisions, and that’s difficult to deal with.”
That was clear last week, when Scott released a statement in response to Officer Christopher Flores’ indictment on felony assault and gun charges for his shooting of Jamaica Hampton, a man who had, moments, before beaten Flores with a glass bottle. “Given the facts as we know them, I am surprised and, quite frankly, disappointed by this felony indictment against one of our officers,” Scott said while making the case that the facts supported Flores’ lawful shooting of Hampton, who survived the incident but lost a leg.
Nevertheless, on Wednesday, Scott said the issue is “something we have to work through.”
The DA’s “role is to make a decision based on the evidence and make a decision on whether to charge the case,” Scott said. “I suspect that there are going to be times … where I may not agree with your decision.”
Boudin wanted to clarify the purpose of the investigative unit. “We’re doing it because we believe that the public demands, and appropriately deserves, to have real clarity about what happens in any officer use-of-force case.”
But, he added that the unit also “clears the names of those officers who use force lawfully.”
The DA stressed — and the chief agreed — it was important to make those decisions quickly. Boudin noted his decision last Thursday not to file charges in two police shootings that took place this year. One was in April, in which a man ran toward a police officer with a screwdriver and the officer fired twice at the man but did not hit him. Boudin also decided not to file charges against the two officers who shot and killed Cesar Vargas, who ran at the officers wielding a knife.
Those decisions came in “record time,” and the DA said fast charging decisions, in general, provide “closure” to both community members and police officers.
“I and the department appreciate the expediency of the quick decisions,” Scott responded. “These cases are hard enough as it is. “ … So when officers can get closure, when families can get closure — whichever way those decisions go — I think that’s a good thing.”
Scott added that there is still work in refining the investigative unit’s processes — for the sake of both the public and police. “There are some bugs that we’ve got to work through,” he said. “But I think we need to get this right. This is too important not to get it right.”